Art is my oxygen

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Emma Price as a young girl at the Art Gallery of NSW after an art-making activity

There’s one thing more important than coming to the Art Gallery of NSW, and that is coming back. The longer you spend looking and responding, the richer the encounter becomes.

Emma Price is a young artist who knows this very well. As she says in the interview below, she has been visiting the Gallery since she was a toddler, and there can be few visitors who know and love the Gallery’s collections and exhibitions – and staff! – so well. When Together In Art learned of Emma’s long association with the Gallery through access programs producer Danielle Gullotta, we knew we needed to hear more about this 21-year-old’s journey in art with the Gallery – from her experiences as a seven-year-old in Starting With Art through to her weekly encounters with the art of Frida Kahlo in 2016.

Have you always been interested in art?

Mum says that as a toddler I was always drawing and scribbling, cutting paper shapes and making things. She also said I loved paint and felt-tip markers – and that I decorated all her doors and walls with them.

So when did you first come to the Art Gallery of NSW?

Since I was a toddler, Mum has brought me to the Gallery regularly. I was about seven when Mum found the access programs and we met Danielle, who introduced us to the Gallery and its Starting with Art program. I loved the Gallery so much I became a member and joined the Kids Club, continuing well into my teens.

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Emma with Danielle Gullotta

That’s almost a lifelong association! Tell us about your personal journey with art and with the Gallery.

The Gallery is so special, it is like a second home to me, my refuge. It is my place of passion and joy. Being regularly immersed in this environment over the years has fuelled a passion for art and art-making. As I was home-schooled, a lot of my schooling took place at the Gallery. I would spend days at the Gallery using art as a learning resource. My very first work to be exhibited was a pastel and collage piece I created in the Kids Club. It was exhibited in the members lounge and I felt so proud to have it there for everyone to see.

What does a visit to the Gallery involve for you?

We live in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, so we always come for a whole day. On arrival, we see the staff at security for a quick hello. After the long trip from the Blue Mountains, our first port of call is the members lounge for a drink. We always contact Danielle as soon as we arrive so we can organise a catch-up. Then it’s a catch up with the people at the Gallery Shop, and then on with our Gallery day. We’ll have regular breaks in the members lounge where we catch up with Dot Kolentsis, Jamie, Fiona Mac and Michel the cafe staffer, to name a few. I often assist the Art Gallery Society volunteers with mailouts. We sit in the boardroom stuffing thousands of envelopes and having fun.

You showed us photos of a celebration at the Gallery. What was the event?

I celebrated my 16th and 18th birthdays at the Gallery! It was so special to be able to share this with my Gallery family. We brought a selection of goodies in to the members lounge and all our friends – Danielle and the access program staff, guides and volunteers, the staff from the Gallery Shop, Dot, Fi, Jamie and other Society staff – joined us for mud cakes and happy birthday.

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Emma celebrates her 18th birthday at the Gallery

We understand there are some spaces and paintings you feel a real connection with.

All the spaces in the Gallery are special to me. I love exploring them all. The Grand Courts contain The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon 1890, a very dear friend and the first artwork I viewed in Starting with Art. It’s such a sensory delight; I still remember making a crown and being swathed in beautiful fabric. I visit Sheba whenever we come to the Gallery.

Elioth Gruner’s Spring frost 1919 is one of the first works I remember viewing as a toddler and another I always visit. My family has a connection to the farm in the painting. Mum grew up right where this was painted. I love how you can feel the crispness of the frost. It is so typical of Emu Plains when a frost is on. We drive past this spot every time we come down from the mountains.

Streeton’s landscapes are beautiful too.

Did you know there is an Arthur Streeton exhibition coming up?

I can’t wait for it! I love the stillness and light in so many of his paintings. Fire’s on 1891 is a special one because it was painted close to where I live and it has an interesting story about the canvas having a little bit of damage from a flying stone when they were blasting while he was painting.

And how about artists who inspire your art-making?

The Australian galleries hold the work of many artists who I love and who inspire my art-making. One of these is Margaret Preston. Another is Grace Cossington Smith. When I look at her painting The window 1956, I want to be in that room looking at all the things in it. I want to look out the window and explore what is beyond. I love the rich green Grace uses in this painting. Her brushstrokes remind me of mosaics, which I love to make. The Lacquer Room 1936 makes me feel like getting dressed up in beautiful clothes to go to this lovely restaurant.

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Emma in the Australian galleries with the works of Roland Wakelin, including (at right) Syncromy in orange major 1919 © Roland Wakelin Estate

Colour is clearly something that means a lot to you.

Yes! When the John Kaldor Family Gallery first opened, I experienced Sol LeWitt’s Wall drawing #1091: arcs, circles and bands (room) 2003 and I couldn’t stop smiling – it made me feel so happy. Being surrounded by so much colour and shape was incredibly joyous. I could have sat in there forever.

I am always colouring in; that never changes. Wherever I go, I have pencils and something to colour! My colouring is incessant and I love it.

You also mentioned mosaics. How did that enthusiasm begin?

Thanks to being involved with the Gallery, I was nominated for the Variety Children’s Charity NSW Art Scholarship. It allowed me to attend weekly art and mosaic classes with Caitlin Hepworth, a wonderful artist in the Blue Mountains. I immersed myself in art-making and began a wonderful journey in mosaics.

Working with mosaic is very different to other forms of art-making. When you come up with a design, you then need to translate it into one that works with the tiles (tesserae) you’ll be using. You need to work out your design and draw the shape of each tile to ensure the andamento (flow) of the work. Variety Children’s Charity NSW commissioned me to create a Waratah mosaic to be given as a thank you to Nicole Kidman.

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Emma’s water-lily mosaic, inspired by Claude Monet

Now tell us about your favourite shows.

We revisited Monet and the impressionists a number of times and I asked Mum to buy a framed print of his waterlilies which is hanging in our lounge. Monet inspired my first mosaic.

Pop to popism made me laugh with its bright happy colours. I loved the cafe, which was manned by our friend Michel. The crunchy, sweet caramel popcorn added to the sensory experience of the exhibition. I particularly love Andy Warhol. His work inspired my Portrait of Mum.

I have always loved unicorns, so when I heard about The lady and the unicorn I couldn’t wait to see the exhibition. I said to Mum, ‘I wonder if it’s the tapestry in my book Blizzard of the blue moon’ – and it was! I revisited this exhibition many times and continue to read the exhibition catalogue. I would love one of these tapestries in my home.

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Emma with an exhibition wall graphic of Sight c1500 from The lady and the unicorn series from Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris. Artwork photo © RMN-GP / M Urtado

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Emma’s Portrait of Mum, inspired by Andy Warhol

But Frida was your favourite?

The Frida Kahlo exhibition was very personal for me. It had such a special and powerful meaning. Like Frida, I spend large amounts of time in hospital, at doctors and at therapy. She, like me, carried a doll with her everywhere and wore beautiful flowers in her hair, as I have done since I was small. Mum used to call me her little Frida. I related so much to Frida’s life story. We visited almost weekly so we could focus on the different works and the incredible video of her life. I loved the vibrant colours, her fashion and personal style, and especially her personal and inner strength. Frida inspired my mosaic Tree of life.

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Work in progress on Emma’s mosaic Tree of life, inspired by Frida Kahlo

The Gallery is closed at the moment and we’re all just coming out of isolation. How have you been staying in touch with art?

I really miss the Gallery. There is nothing that takes its place! But Danielle and I have been having Zoom sessions and looking at collection works. I loved seeing the cut-outs of Matisse. Cut-outs and collage are some of my favourite things to do. I used to make thousands of paper dolls; I’d draw and colour them, then cut them out and make other clothes and accessories. In some ways mosaic reminds me of collage. When I’m cutting the tesserae and placing them on the substrate it gives me the same joy.

So, to end with a big question, what does art mean to you?

Art is not only a way of expressing myself. It also gives me a sense of achievement, fulfilment and validation. There are times when it can be frustrating, but even then I still enjoy it. Art has been my best friend and helped me through some very difficult times. It’s my oxygen!